In sorrow, not in anger
I was born nearly 74 years ago in Dhaka. The thought that in not performing the Hajj I had failed to fulfil my father's expectations had been bothering me for some time.
Whatever little I know about Islam, I have learnt from books. I have often felt the need to go back to the origins of Islam. So when an opportunity to perform Hajj came my way rather unexpectedly, I grabbed it.
On November 27, with a Hajj visa on my passport, I travelled to Medina. I felt a great sense of joy and spiritual exhilaration as I touched Medina's soil. After all, it was here that our Prophet found refuge, escaping from Mecca, where early Islam's crucial battles were fought, and where the Prophet and Islam's first two Caliphs are buried.
Immigration control at the Medina airport was a chaotic affair. As I handed over my passport and other documents to the immigration officer, I found to my utter horror that they were dumped into plastic bags with hundreds of other similar documents. I tried to keep track of my passport but it was to no avail. In the ensuing chaos, I could see that the other relevant documents were strewn across the counter.
Somehow, I managed to recover my ticket but the passport was taken away without any receipt. I was told that I should visit the Hajj Ministry in two days' time, where it would be returned to me. Little did I know at that time that I would not be authorised to travel anywhere, not even to Mecca, except under the supervision of the Saudi authorities and that I would be spending the better part of my stay in Saudi Arabia trying to locate my passport.
As I had planned to travel to Mecca with some friends who were staying at the Bangladesh Hajj Mission, I was anxious to recover my passport as quickly as possible. So, on the third day of my arrival in Medina, I went to the address where I had been instructed to go. From there I was sent to another place, where I was asked to pay an amount of approximately two hundred euros.
Once the payment was made, I was asked to return the next day. After several visits, I was told that my passport would not be returned until I left the country. I was put under the care of an official guide and forced to travel to Mecca on one of the government designated buses. A journey from Medina usually takes between five and six hours but it took the official bus nearly 16 hours to drop me at my destination.
When I asked about my passport, the man gave me a wrist band and told me in Arabic (it is curious that although we, the pilgrims, had come from all over the world these people who were supposed to help us did not speak any other language except Arabic) that if challenged by the police, I should show it to them, which gave me an eerie feeling.
I was told that the passport itself would be returned to me after the Hajj. I wondered whether the passport would be returned to me at the Jeddah airport or whether I should make additional efforts to visit the authorities in Mecca to locate the passport. To cut a long story short, after several visits to the relevant Hajj Ministry (there are several), I was instructed to visit them on the day of my departure, which I did.
There, after further questioning, two officers put me in a van and drove me to the bus station. The bus took me to the Jeddah international airport, where I was finally reunited with my passport without, of course, any of the other documents, which I had so carefully tucked inside the passport while handing it over to the immigration authorities at the Medina airport.
My job and my passion to explore unknown lands have taken me to many countries, but never did I have such a humiliating experience as I had this time in Saudi Arabia except once. Nearly forty years ago, during the Soviet days, I travelled from London to Moscow on a British passport.
I felt unprotected when my passport was taken away by the police at the immigration control. When I protested, the Soviet police officers rudely shouted niet, niet and ordered me to move on. But that was during the Cold War, and the Soviet Union, besides being a police state, was a closed society. The Soviets were also afraid of everyone. Now I wonder what the Saudi authorities are so afraid of.